Frustrated by the draw that placed his U.S. Olympic team alongside Argentina and Portugal back in 1996, coach Bruce Arena famously lashed out at the “nice Americans” who “don’t cheat” and who are “too stupid to fix a draw.”
Arena took some heat for that little rant and sure enough, the host U.S. finished third in its quartet and was eliminated from Olympic competition.
Still two years away from taking over the senior U.S. squad, Arena called soccer “the biggest cheating sport in the world,” implying – likely with tongue in cheek -- that manipulation of those all-important plastic balls is par for the course at the game’s highest level.
Well, if there ever was a time for those nice and naive Americans to muster the malice and means to influence a draw, it would be now. Hire someone like Danny Ocean or Ethan Hunt to infiltrate the Costa do Sauípe Resort in Bahia -- where FIFA will determine the World Cup groups on Dec. 6. – and swap out a couple of balls or make the host an offer he can’t refuse. Because that draw very well may seal the U.S. national team’s first-round fate, and it very well may be brutal. Prepare for groups – plural – of death.
More than two years of qualifying competition ended Wednesday night in Uruguay, where La Celeste clinched the 32nd and final World Cup berth with an easy aggregate victory over Jordan. The preliminaries featured 207 entrants, 816 games and wound up producing a Cinderella-free World Cup. The only debutant, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is an up-and-coming soccer power whose qualification surprised no one. The favorites in CONCACAF, Africa and Asia all advanced. Each of the eight former world champions will be in Brazil, and all but one of the top 20 teams according to FIFA’s world ranking has booked passage (No. 20 Ukraine fell to No. 21 France in Tuesday’s UEFA playoff).
For more than a decade, the U.S. has stood on the threshold of soccer’s elite. In the four World Cup tournaments played since MLS launched in 1996, the Americans have survived the first round on two occasions and twice finished last in their group. They have won four of 22 games at the World Cup finals since returning to the global stage in 1990. One victory came on home soil back in 1994 and the other against familiar foe Mexico in 2002. The World Cup is hard. The U.S. can compete, but it hasn’t consistently challenged the sport’s entrenched powers. In recent tournaments, the difference usually has been the draw.
In 2010, the U.S. hit the lottery. It was paired with the second-weakest seeded side (England), one of the shakier African teams (Algeria) and a relatively inexperienced European entrant (Slovenia). Thanks to Landon Donovan's famous last-gasp goal in Pretoria, the Americans advanced.
In 2006, Arena's team finished last in the World Cup’s second-toughest group, which comprised eventual champion Italy, a talented Czech Republic squad that was ranked second in the world and African power Ghana, which would become a U.S. nemesis.
In 2002, the Americans lucked into a quartet that included host South Korea and underachieving Portugal. Germany represented a sure first-round defeat in 1998, leaving coach Steve Sampson's side to battle Yugoslavia and Iran for the final second-round berth.
The current U.S. team has proven its superiority in CONCACAF and has played toe-to-toe with some of the world’s top teams in recent exhibitions. The American talent pool is deeper than ever and coach Jurgen Klinsmann will ensure his squad isn’t intimidated by any opponent. But there’s only so much he can control. The way FIFA has seeded the 2014 tournament, and the procedure it likely use to fill out the groups on Dec. 6, almost ensures that the U.S. will face a rough road to the round-of-16.
Through the 2006 tournament in Germany, FIFA used past World Cup performance as a factor when determining seeds. But since 2010, only the world ranking has mattered, meaning that a couple of mediocre months by a traditional power or a decent run (or softer friendly schedule) by an upstart might produce some surprises. Next summer Belgium, Colombia and Switzerland will be seeded while the likes of France, Italy, England and the Netherlands won’t. As a result, any of those nations could be paired with seeds Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Spain and create an instant group of death for the other two participants. And it goes without saying that Belgium and Colombia won’t be pushovers.
The U.S. is hampered further by the likelihood (it hasn't been confirmed) that FIFA will create a pot of eight teams comprising the four CONCACAF entrants and the four Asian qualifiers. In that group -- which will include Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia – the U.S. would be considered the best side. But the pot's composition would ensure that the Americans can’t face any of those beatable squads in the group stage in Brazil. The U.S. will be left to play a seed, an unseeded European team and a nation pulled from a pot containing the five African entrants (four of which will be second-round threats), Chile and Ecuador. If the U.S. is paired with a South American seed, its group still could include two European opponents.
So, consider the possibilities: Brazil/Netherlands/Ivory Coast/USA, or Spain/France/Ghana/USA, or Germany/Italy/Chile/USA. As the best team in its pot, the U.S. makes whatever group it lands in that much tougher. There are draw simulators on the internet that will kick out groups of death all day. We tried this one four times on Thursday. It produced groups that placed the U.S. with Brazil/Italy/Algeria, Colombia/France/Croatia, Argentina/France/Bosnia and Germany/Cameroon/Bosnia. It’s fair to say the U.S. would have a tough time in any of those quartets, and that’s no slight to the U.S. The field, plus FIFA’s draw procedure, has left almost no breathing room.
ESPN statistician Paul Carr ran through the permutations and, based on his national team rankings, found that the U.S. had a 43 percent chance to move through to the second round next summer. Its worst-case-scenario group – Spain/Netherlands/Chile -- produces a 15.3 percent chance of advancement. Those odds improve to an optimal 73.6 percent if the Americans are drawn with Switzerland, Algeria and Croatia.
But it’s far from hopeless. There are a lot of good players at Klinsmann’s disposal, there’s always a World Cup favorite or two that falls flat, and the possibility of Carr’s best-case group is out there. But if that happens, then it’s probably OK to wonder whether Klinsmann’s 11 was helped by Ocean’s 11. Klinsmann has said over and over that he wants to challenge the best. He wants to test his team against soccer royalty. He’ll almost surely get his chance, and then some, next summer.